Coalition Presses Baker to Reduce COVID-19 Risks in Prisons
Activists: Higher Infection Rates Warrant Action
5/12/20 3:47 PM
MAY 12, 2020.....Warning that public health precautions are impossible with prisons and jails at their current population levels, a coalition of legal aid and community groups increased their calls Tuesday for the Baker administration to reduce incarceration and limit COVID-19 risks in correctional facilities.
Advocates have warned since the start of the outbreak that correctional facilities are vulnerable to the highly infectious disease because of frequent close contact, but public safety officials so far have not taken large-scale steps to release inmates in significant numbers.
The coalition, which includes groups ranging from the New England Innocence Project to the National Association of Social Workers' Massachusetts chapter, unveiled new demands that the administration act, arguing Gov. Charlie Baker has broad clemency powers he could deploy while plaintiffs seek relief in the courts.
"The need for decarceration, the release of prisoners is the only way to stem the public health emergency that's facing our prisoners, those that are incarcerated," said Rev. David Lewis, a board member at the Pioneer Valley Project. "Social distancing is impossible to do in prisons, and infections are spreading dangerously fast."
Under a Supreme Judicial Court ruling issued in April, pre-trial detainees charged with non-violent crimes can seek release during the coronavirus outbreak. A separate class action lawsuit seeking greater release is ongoing, and the court heard oral arguments last week.
As of Monday, 1,158 inmates had been released from state and county correctional facilities to comply with the order, according to a weekly report required as part of the court's decision. Several facilities had no confirmed cases, and many were concentrated in a handful of locations including the Essex County jail and Bridgewater's Massachusetts Treatment Center.
The same data show that 501 Massachusetts prisoners and 286 correctional facility staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since early April. Eight prisoners have died from the illness, according to a summary of the data published by Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts.
"The curve that we're seeing outside prisons and jails is not the same as what we're seeing inside," Elizabeth Matos, the group's director, said Tuesday. "It's on its own trajectory, and it will continue to be that way until we apply the rules we're seeing out here as much as possible to prisons and jails."
Baker's Department of Correction has described steps such as limiting movement in facilities, frequently disinfecting high-contact areas, and distributing masks to inmates. More than 2,800 inmates have been tested since early April.
"In the past month alone, the Parole Board has issued more than 350 release permits, the Department of Correction has tested more than 2,800 inmates for COVID-19, and more than 1,150 inmates have been released from state and county facilities under the SJC's framework," Executive Office of Public Safety and Security spokesman Jake Wark said in a statement. "State criminal justice agencies will continue to protect public health and public safety, review each case on its merits, and work with our partners and stakeholders as we confront this unprecedented global health crisis."
Decarceration supporters argued Tuesday that the only strategy that will make a sufficient difference is to reduce jail and prison populations to a point where social distancing inside them is possible.
"The whole point of this effort is to avert a public health crisis," said Rahsaan Hall, racial justice program director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. "This is not decarceration for decarceration's sake. These are people who have been sentenced to a term-limited sentence, not to death, but by not decarcerating at a significant amount, that is what we are setting people up to do: receive a death sentence."
Citing work from the Prison Policy Initiative, advocates said governors in 15 other states have taken more concrete action to reduce inmate populations.
They published a 10-point plan for decarceration in Massachusetts, including steps such as granting parole to qualifying individuals who are within six months of their eligibility date, compelling hotel and motel owners or colleges to help house newly released inmates, and withdrawing warrants for minor parole infractions.
Advocates argued that, as governor, Baker could use clemency powers -- a rare step for any state's top executive -- to release medically vulnerable inmates where public safety is not a concern.
"The governor has it in his power," said Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association. "If not him, if not his administration, then who will act?"
Public safety and correction officials have faced questions about managing COVID-19 in prisons since the outbreak began.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said early on in the state's fight that she would work to identify vulnerable inmates held in custody who could be released. She later fought against Suffolk Superior Court Judge Christine Roach's release of William Utley, who is held on second-degree murder charges but was allowed out on GPS monitoring because he is undergoing treatment for leukemia.
In a Sunday appearance on Keller at Large, Rollins said precautions such as social distancing and frequent hygiene are "virtually impossible in some circumstances when you're incarcerated." However, she said she does not believe public health outweighs public safety in every instance.
"Even though there could be a defendant that is violent or immunocompromised and if we send him or her to a carceral facility, they might be at a heightened risk to contract COVID-19, if they are too violent, forget about this global pandemic -- to be in the community, I always have to look at public safety over public health. Period," she said.
The Senate approved legislation Monday (S 2695) that requires DOC to report on COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional facilities.
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